Women have served in the Canadian military since 1885, when nurses provided care to the Canadian troops in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon in the West Rebellion. Their tour of duty lasted four weeks.
By the First World War (1914-1918) nursing became increasingly organized and recognized. More than 3,000 women served with the Royal Canadian Medical Corps and close to 2,500 went overseas where they served close to the front lines in hospitals, on ships and in combat zones. During the war, more than 40 nurses lost their lives while in service.
During the Second World War (1939-1945) Canadian women were not allowed to serve in combat but were still greatly involved in the war effort.
Close to 4,500 nurses served in World War II and in 1941 a Women’s Division was created for all three branches of the military. By this time more than 50,000 women served in the Canadian Armed Forces, including working as clerks, mechanics, parachute riggers, wireless operators and photographers.
On Aug. 13, 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force established a Women’s Division and some 17,000 Women served. Nora Smart was one of them.
When Smart served in the Canadian Air Force she was working at a post office in Ottawa from 1944 to January 1946. She was a part of a team that was responsible for sending mail overseas to air force troops. It was during World War II and it was a tumultuous time.
“The part that was the saddest about (working in the post office) was when a ship would be torpedoed and all the mail would come back to us,” Smart said. “Occasionally some of those ships would go down.”
Any mail left after a blast would be sorted through to figure out who sent it, or who it was going to.
“If [the mail] was in pretty good shape we re-wrapped it and sent it on to whoever it was sent for, otherwise if we couldn’t find the return we’d send it back to the person because prisoners of war were only allowed so many parcels,” Smart said. “It was important that we let whoever know that was sending it that it hadn’t gone so they could send another one if they wanted to.”
Smart said all mail coming from overseas was edited and scanned for anything that could give away locations of where troops were stationed. Information would often be blacked out, she said.
Growing up on a farm, the idea of moving to a city appealed to Smart and after a friend began working for the military, she too decided to seek employment when she turned 18.
“Also part of it was I really wanted to be part of what my brothers were part of because I always felt like I should be able to do what my brothers could,” Smart added.
Her two brothers were in the army, one went through North Africa and Italy while the other went through Juno Beach and into France where he was wounded.
“One of the things that was really bad was waiting for the telegram to tell you, in our case, that my brother had been wounded in France and flown back to England,” Smart said. “We didn’t know if he was going to live or not. He was hit with shrapnel and had to have reconstructive surgery on his face.”
Smart said both her brothers came back alive but that there were many people who were devastated by the death of loved ones.
“I think a war makes you very aware of a lot of things; like what’s important and what isn’t,” she said.
During the war, Smart said everyone lived by their radios.
“I can remember being in my earlier teens and being home and we all had to be really quiet for the six o’clock news,” Smart said. “We just all listened to what was going on all the time and we were very aware of what was going on.”
She said that like the letters, a lot of what was heard on the radio was probably screened.
“I’m sure a lot of it was propaganda and we didn’t always get what was the truth,” she said.
The day the war ended, Smart said Ottawa was in “total shut down.”
“No business except restaurants were open,” she said. “People were parading. Everybody was out on the streets celebrating and it was a wonderful feeling.”
Today, at age 93, Smart has been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 134 in Shawnigan Lake for 47 years.
Vetran Janet McKee, who joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 and the regular force in 1984, said the presence of women serving grew as the years went by.
“There wasn’t really a lot of women I would say earlier on in my career. When I was on the ship, with about 245 people on board, I’d say maybe about 45 were women,” McKee said. “I don’t think it was a big thing on young gal’s minds (at that time). It’s been in the press a lot more and because of that, people have heard more stories about it.”
McKee, who worked in administration and finance with the Canadian military, said she became interested in the military in high school when a friend of hers joined the reserves.
“They would go away for the summers and train and go on exercises and they would make money for university. I thought that was a great idea,” she said. “First I went down and watched a little bit, one of then nights they were parading at the reserve unit and I thought, this isn’t for me, and a few months later I changed my mind and I joined and I had lots of fun in it. I was there for nine years before I ended up joining the regular force.”
When she first began serving, McKee said women were not allowed in combat roles, which began to change in 1982 when the Armed Forces were required to consider the equality of women in the services and permit them into all military roles. It took seven more years, until 1989, for all combat roles to finally be opened to women.
“When I joined, women weren’t going to sea, women weren’t in army units, they were not first line in any way, shape or form and there was a lot of resistance to that as time went on,” McKee said. “But of course, like everything, we move ahead for the positive.”
During her time serving, McKee said her fondest memories are those of camaraderie.
“I think the friendships that you can make and the bonds are ones I can’t really compare to anything else, it’s very rewarding,” she said.
McKee, who in a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 91, served for 34 years and retired medically in 2009. On Nov. 11, she will go to the Cenotaph in Langford and pay her respects.
By 2011, women made up about 15 per cent of the Canadian military, with more than 7,900 female personnel serving in regular force and more than 4,800 women serving in the primary reserve. Out of that number, 225 women are part of the regular combat force and 925 are enlisted in the primary reserve combat force.